Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims by Wiilliam Blake. Courtsey of John Windle Antiquarian Bookseller.

Nerd Out: Nation's First Art Gallery Dedicated to William Blake Opens in SF

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Calling all romantics! San Francisco is about to become the destination for connoisseurs of the prolific art work of William Blake. Yes, that William Blake.


When it opens its doors in the art hub that is 49 Geary Street this October, The William Blake Gallery will be the world's first and only space dedicated to the famed English artist who, though he may be best known for his Romantic poems including Night and The Tyger, was also a stunningly prolific artist and printmaker whose etchings, engravings, and paintings illustrated his own poetic volumes as well as such other master works of literature as Dante's Divine Comedy. The new Union Square gallery will exhibit more than 1,000 pieces of Blake's work, including fine engravings and watercolors, as well as reproductions of his writings. It's kind of strange and amazing, right?


The new Blake Gallery is the result of a singular lifelong obsession. As it turns out, Englishman John Windle, owner of John Windle Antiquarian Bookseller, is quite the collector. "I didn't look for him, he came to me," Windle muses from his shop (also located in the building at 49 Geary). "In 1960, I met the daughter of a translator of Blake, and she suggested I start reading his poems. I fell in love. Then, when I was living in London, I worked in a bookshop that used to sell reproductions of Blake; I started to collect his works."


Dante's Inferno.

When it comes to literati, Windle is as authentic as they come—a bookseller for 50 years who trained at London's highly regarded Bernard Quaritch Ltd and then John Howell-Books in SF. In 1975, he opened his first antiquarian book shop on Post Street with Ron Randall, himself a collector antique books and owner of Randall House Rare Books. But when Randall moved to San Barbara, Windle chose to relocate to Venice, California to focus on his writing. He subsequently published two bibliographies, traveled around the Eastern world, and studied Tibetan Buddhism, all before returning to SF in 1989 where he founded his eponymous book business. Today, Windle is the downtown go-to for rare books and manuscripts from the Middle Ages through the 20th century, illustrated materials, and, of course, William Blake works.


"What I like about Blake is that everyone can buy one of his original pieces," Windle says, pointing to prints that start at just $50 and ranging to original artworks for $15,000 and master paintings for $300,000 or more. "I like to say that Blake is the only famous artist whose work can be collected by the young, the intellectuals, artists, techies, and millionaires."

"The death of the strong wicked man," an illustration by William Blake for "The Grave," a poem of Robert Blair.

The Blake Gallery will showcase some of his notable works, including unique color images from his illustrated poetry collection Songs of Innocence, published in 1789; illustrations created for Dante's Divine Comedy in the 1820s; and an original pencil study Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims.


"He was one of the greatest contributors to the Western world of literature and art. His mystic visions led him to design his own philosophy or theology, even though he wasn't a religious man—he didn't like churches at all. His spiritual connection was so strong that it gave him the strength to keep producing and, even when people didn't believe in him, he was never discouraged and he kept doing his art," Windle says.



Head of Blake by Leonard Baskin.

Certainly Blake has always been an inspiration for many artists, and even a few musicians that you might not expect. Windle recalls: "One day I was sitting here and a lady came in. By the way she was dressed, I thought she was homeless. She started looking at Blake's books and printings, and I thought that she couldn't afford them. Then I discovered she was Patti Smith." Smith, as any fan will know, is rather a Blake devotee—in 2011, at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut, sang Blake's famous poem, "The Tyger" (currently being used as the soundtrack for an Infiniti car commercial, interpreted by Games of Thrones star Kit Harrington).


The gallery will also highlight the works of Blake contemporaries as well as emerging artists inspired by the master. "I would love to promote young and talented local artists and give them the space to exhibit their work." // John Windle Antiquarian Bookseller, 49 Geary St. (Union Square), johnwindle.com


Watch Patti Smith sing "The Tyger," live at Wadsworth Atheneum in 2011:

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